Hilary Mantel, in last year’s Reith Lectures, said: As soon as we die, we enter into fiction. Just ask two different family members to tell you about someone recently gone, and you will see what I mean. Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted. When we remember – as psychologists so often tell us – we don’t reproduce the past, we create it. Surely, you may say – some truths are non-negotiable, the facts of history guide us. And the records do indeed throw up some facts and figures that admit no dispute. But the historian Patrick Collinson wrote: “It is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Because, of course, 99% of the evidence, above all, unrecorded speech, is not available to us.”
Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It’s no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It’s the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.
Hilary Mantel, ‘The day is for the living’ – Lecture 1 – BBC Reith Lectures, 2017 (Broadcast 13th June 2017)
I think she’s right.
And I read today of healings and teachings nearly 2,000 years in the past:
9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath … 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
19 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. 21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.
24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:9,16-24 ESV)
But if Hilary Mantel is right, then what you and I have just read is fictional truth, if it is truth at all. How can we know?
Because in this case, a grave is still empty. And Jesus still draws people to himself. Yes, there is a danger we fictionalise Jesus and turn him into our image but then the Word of God speaks and our fiction is challenged and what is left remains Jesus and people living their eternal life already in this world. GS